Active in the Resistance during the Second World War, the poet Francis Ponge moved clandestinely from house to house, to evade the dreaded Nazi Gestapo and agents of the collaborationist Vichy regime. Among the few things he carried on him was a small illustration of Georges Braque’s Mandoline à la partition, which he cut from an inexpensive art book (probably G. Besson, op. cit., 1942, pl. 20). Braque painted this still-life earlier in the war, about a year into the Occupation.
The picture struck a chord in Ponge, who would tack the worn color image to the wall wherever he was staying, “a little like my flags,” he later wrote, as a reminder of his “reasons for living (and struggling).” The artist’s colors caught his eye and raised his spirits, “very bold but properly arranged in their tonalities, which included a particularly subversive mauve... It haunts me still. That was why I could go on living. Happily. That was the society (of friends) I was fighting for...” (“Braque, or the Meditation of the Work,” in op. cit., 1971, p. 48).
Mandoline à la partition, then known to Ponge as Le Banjo, is among the most formally ambitious and richly colored compositions that Braque created during the war years. The brilliant vermillion hue of the table-cloth, ablaze like plunging molten lava against the mysterious, darker mauve tints in the background, sets this painting apart from the more somber, earthen-toned still-lifes that Braque typically painted during this trying period of shortage, privation, and menace.
This sanguine color may allude to events of the day, but Braque often incorporated such startling effects of chromatic contrast in the magnificent still-life compositions that he painted during the late 1930s. “At the time of the outbreak of the Second World War [September 1939] Braque was at the zenith of his maturity and had attained international recognition as one of the greatest living French artists,” John Golding declared. “The still-lifes executed in the second half of the 1930s are among the fullest and most sumptuous in the entire French canon. Braque was enlarging his iconographic range by producing a series of interiors furnished with still-lifes, many of which refer to attributes of the painter’s studio” (op., cit., exh. cat., 1997, p. 1).
Just as Braque, together with his friend Picasso, had been mining the possibilities of high Cubism in its newer synthetic phase at the beginning of the First World War, so in 1940 Braque arrived–again in wartime–at an momentously productive juncture in his career, during which he summed up and further enriched the distinctive character he had brought to his art during the intervening years. These new paintings are profoundly subtle, delicately nuanced, luminescent, and crystalline, qualities which lend a singular and unmistakably French voice to modernism in the arts during the 20th century. These elaborate compositions are, in their way, the consummate synthetic cubist paintings that Braque’s front-line service in the Great War of 1914, and the consequences from the serious head wound he suffered at Carency in 1915, did not allow him to paint at that time.
As if to counter the grim reality all around, Braque imbued Mandoline à la partition with memories and perhaps the anticipation of pleasurable domestic music-making. The body of the instrument emblematically resembles a heart at the center of the composition. Braque possessed a highly refined and knowledgeable interest in music, and was drawn especially to the French composers of the early 18th century–Couperin and Rameau chief among them–whose baroque manner was a rare, connoisseur’s taste during the first half of the 20th century. The musician Braque esteemed above all others, however, was Johann Sebastian Bach, whose name he inscribed in homage on a cubist painting (cat. rais., Le Cubisme, 1907-1914, no. 122) and inserted into three papiers collés (nos. 165, 166b and 199), executed in 1912-1913.
The theme of music, in the shape of a mandolin or violin, and the stave lines for musical notation, was elsewhere a recurring idea during Braque’s and Picasso’s high cubist period. Some three decades later, the elaborate overlays of interior decoration in Mandoline à la partition, especially along the left edge of the canvas, similarly resonate in their baroque complexity, akin to the contrapuntal lines in early 18th century music. As antecedents for the presence of music in the painter’s studio, Braque admired the interiors of Vermeer, and Corot as well, for the latter’s young gypsy girls with mandolins and the occasional use of this instrument as a prop in his atelier series. Every still-life Braque ever painted, of course, is a homage to Chardin, the founder of this pictorial tradition in France, also a contemporary of the Enlightenment composers whose music Braque loved.
A measured simplicity, clarity of articulation, and a serene, natural sense of presence had been the hallmarks of Braque’s still-life painting during the inter-war period. Jean Paulhan noted that the artist had been known as “the master of concrete relations.” In the paintings created during the period leading to the Second World War, however, as indeed in Mandoline à la partition as well, a new tendency became apparent–Paulhan added, “I would readily call him the master of invisible relations” (in “Braque le patron,” exh. cat., op. cit., 2013, p. 215).
“What is clear from these series of the late ‘30s is that Braque’s work was growing cryptically personal,” Edward Mullins explained. “It was also becoming less literal in its presentation of material things. Braque’s world had always been one of objects, in particular objects close enough to touch. Henceforth, a metaphysical note was to sound increasingly loud in Braque’s painting; for the first time images appear which either have no material existence, or else they have become detached sufficiently from that material role to introduce ideas that dwell outside the physical boundaries of Braque’s theme... The introduction during the late ‘30s of this metaphysical element into Braque’s material world ranks as the second momentous innovation of his career (the first being his contribution to Cubism) and it paves the way for that series of noble and mysterious still-lifes, in some respects the summit of Braque’s achievements, the [post-war] Studio series” (Braque, London, 1968, pp. 135-136).
Braque did not stand aloof from the devastating defeat that his country suffered in 1940 at the hands of the German invaders, and he endured the anxieties and privations that beset many of his fellow countrymen during the Occupation. Before the war he had presciently declared, "The artist is always under threat... One cannot separate him from other men. He lives on the same level as everyone else" (Cahiers d'Art, 1-4, 1939, p. 66). His response to this dire situation was to immerse himself in his art and to focus on the most elementary nature of things, to take comfort in those objects that were most familiar and meaningful to him in the routine of daily living. In a time when life was especially fragile and nothing about one’s existence could be taken for granted, with mere survival at stake, this was a heroic quest for a man, just one among many, who resolved to "suffer without being militant" (ibid.).
As the German Blitzkrieg overwhelmed French defenses in May-June 1940, Braque and his wife Marcelle took refuge near the Pyrenees, and briefly considered that they might join other artists who were making arrangements to go into foreign exile. Concerned, however, that in his absence the Germans would commandeer his house and ransack his studio, he decided to return to Paris and take his chances. The occupiers did in fact turn a building across the street into a headquarters, and had broken into Braque’s home, but they stole only his cherished concertina. It proved difficult for him to paint during this time. The artist normally completed 30-40 paintings per year, but he created only nine in 1939-1940, while turning to sculpture instead. He resumed painting in earnest during 1941, finishing nearly forty pictures, and slightly more the following year 1942.
The Germans had forbidden Picasso, primarily because of the artist’s anti-fascist Guernica, to exhibit publicly. They had classed Braque, for his early Fauve and cubist work, as a “degenerate” artist, and could have proscribed his activity as a painter in various ways. Jean Paulhan, the pre-war leftist editor of the influential Nouvelle Revue Française, had been working on his book Braque el patron (op. cit.) since 1940. He prevailed upon Drieu de la Rochelle, his pro-Nazi replacement at the NRF, to publish an article praising the commendably French formal values in Braque’s painting during the inter-war period. The Occupation authorities did not disturb Braque in his work, and even allowed him to exhibit. A show of twelve paintings dating from 1908-1910 was held at the Galerie de France in May-June 1943. Later that year, a room was devoted to Braque’s recent work at the Salon d’Automne, in which the artist showed 26 paintings and nine sculptures.
“In Occupied Paris the contents of the Braque room caused a suppressed sensation,” Danchev has written. “For French citizens, Braque embodied what French painting could be. For French painters, Braque embodied what painting could be... As for the works themselves, their gravity and humanity were an inspiration. The younger generation–Marc Louttre Bissière, Jean Deyrolle, Nicolas de Staël, many others–needed no instruction from Paulhan. Braque was their patron, naturally. Paulhan’s exact verdict, that Braque’s painting was at once ‘acute and nourishing,’ was loaded with meaning for a public starved of everything from sausages to self-respect” (op. cit., 2005, p. 219).
Braque's enriched sense of realism, his return to things, now inspired him to delve into and reveal the very essence of ordinary objects, as both plastic and substantial form. The stuff of everyday living manifests in his paintings a resplendent fullness of presence and significance that transcends mere function and physical appearance. He carried his wartime research forward into his painting after the Liberation, as seen in the series of Billiard tables and thereafter the magisterial Ateliers of the late 1940s and early 50s, the crowning achievement of his career, in which a profusion of ordinary objects co-exist in a state of symbiotic transformation and metamorphosis. “When one attains this harmony,” Braque explained, “one reaches a sort of intellectual non-existence–what I can only describe as a state of peace–which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation. That is true poetry" (quoted in J. Richardson, Georges Braque, Harmondsworth, 1959, p. 26).
“Braque was not only consistently creative and original as an artist"—Douglas Cooper wrote—“but also, in my opinion the most consummate pure painter of the School of Paris, a great artist who modernized and enormously enriched the French tradition of painting... Braque’s was not a showy personality...his painting was never provocative or sensational and always deeply serious...he pursued to the end his own vision of the world and his own conceptions of picture-making, unswayed by the methods of others” (Braque: The Great Years, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, 1972, p. 26).